Office of Science Quality Assurance

On 21 October 2021, members discussed the recent advocacy for an Office of Science Quality Assurance by AgForce and other parties. There was general support for the position taken publicly by the President that scientists should oppose the establishment of some bureaucratic entity that would pass judgement on scientific publications, as that risks politicising science.

Those not familiar with scientific publishing may not be aware of the checks and balances that apply to material before it is published. Huge effort is routinely put into the planning, design, ethics, conduct, data analysis, write-up and expert review of published data and interpretations of findings relevant to existing knowledge.

In an earlier era, the Queensland Coordinator-General conducted land-use studies that aggregated scientific knowledge and converted it to policy recommendations. That role has been lost as the Office of State Development is now focused on project facilitation. Land-use planning has lost capacity since the abolition of the regional planning unit of the Department of Local Government Planning in 2012.

Admittedly, science needs diverse opinions, perspectives and sources of knowledge. Even where contrary to the overwhelming opinion of other scientists we should defend the principle of academic freedom and allow outlier expert opinions to be expressed.

Our public institutions have lost the generalists who could build bridges between disciplines, science, policy and practice. The rundown of agricultural extension has also severely affected our capacity to translate science into practice. Importantly, extension officers were eyes and ears of government and were able to feed information from rural communities into central corridors.

Supporters of the Office of Science Quality Assurance make much of shortcomings in the conduct of scientific research, such as the lack of replication to confirm previous findings and the dependence of researchers upon grants which require them to tailor their research applications into lines of enquiry likely to be viewed favourably by funding agencies. However, these ills can be traced to a shortfall of funds available for research, onerous procedures to secure funds and perverse incentives built into the career structures of academics. The solutions to these ills lie in policy change.

The President summed up by observing that the real shortfall is not quality assurance of science, but quality assurance of policy and the effectiveness with which it is built into decisions; and they themselves then need quality assurance. It’s the downstream end of science that needs validation.

The President Dr Ross Hynes has crystallised this debate in his 2021 presidential address, now available online.